A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Moving up and down

    I am squeezing a blog update into what has turned out to be a very busy September. We have been leaping forward and making discernible progress on multiple fronts, inside our house and out. First, we have a second floor! It is official, as you can see, and has totally transformed the space inside the house (not to mention greatly increased safety when working upstairs!) We looked for some time for second-hand wood to use for the second floor subfloor, but we ended up purchasing some newly sawn oak from our local mill, run rather appropriately by an Amish man, Ivan Miller. Ivan has supplied our house many times with necessary components, from our joists to our porch decking to our wainy-edge siding, always squeezing our little orders in a timely fashion in between his massive orders for mostly pallet wood. (It is a little saddening to see such beautiful large oaks milled down to pallet components, but such is the demand that keeps him and his fleet of sons in business!). At any rate, we are grateful for such an affordable local resource a few miles from us, and our house is far more beautiful and sturdy for it.

     Credit goes to Mike for laying the second floor while my mother and I have been a plastering machine the last few weeks, (make that month+). While we finished the first floor plastering, Mike raced us to finish half of the upstairs so we could get started there. Then as we worked on that half, he raced us to finish the second half. While we were pushing to execute these goals, I did a somewhat imprudent thing. I agreed to teach a half day "natural building" class to a group of 25 students who were taking a two-week Permaculture class up the road. The class was to have a hands-on component and I thought it would be perfect to work on building our upstairs partition walls, trying out lath caging with woodchip-clay infill, as well as another technique of stuffing straw-clay in temporary plywood forms. But all of this meant considerable prep work: stud framing the walls and ripping down scrap wood into lath, as well as getting the floor complete enough for 25 people to work on. And deadlines never go over very well in this building process, nor in Mike and mine relationship. Nonetheless, despite some considerable stress and long hours leading up to it, the class went well and 25 people were unleashed on buckets of slip and bags of straw. It was a frenzy of woodchips flying and buckets being passed every which way, but in the end, we filled the walls half way and had a successful demo. 

      When the stress of trying to meet our goal of finishing the house gets to be too much, it has been nice to sit and begin to imagine what each of the finished spaces will look like. The bones and flesh of each space are now there, and as light moves through the house on sunny days, it is easy to mentally fill in the details. This is fuel enough to keep me going for now, because truth be told, I am really beginning to fall in love with our house. It is my favorite place to be actually, even despite the fact that it is a mess, looking rather like a giant muddy dog shook itself off in every room. After a few more necessary components get scratched off the to do list (ahem, heat and water?), we will really be in the home stretch, trimming windows and putting on our finish flooring. Okay, it will be a long home stretch, but it is all relative anyhow.

    So on top of all of this progress inside the house, we decided to take another leap forward while the great weather and available assistance were all favorable. Thanks to our fairy-godmother parents stepping in to help organize necessary funding (our house funds start drying up at this time of year before their winter replenishment), we have been able to start another construction project. You know, in our spare time... And that is, our water catchment cistern. Our plan has always been to catch rainwater from our roof and funnel it into a below-ground cistern that we could pump into the house from. Neither of us are masonry experts or plumbing experts however, so our learning curve has been pretty steep on this one. At first it seemed so overwhelming that we just mentally kicked it down the field into next year. But then the thought of daily breaking the ice on our pond this winter and carrying 5-gallon buckets the long walk back to our house started nudging us back into the "wouldn't it be nice just to get it done now?" mentality. I mean, we had the hole already, how hard could it be?

     Immediately, we started consulting everyone we knew who had some knowledge about cisterns. It turns out one of our sister communities 45 miles away, Sandhill Farms, had just undertaken a large cistern project the year before and everything about it had been successful. At the lead of the project was an experienced guy named Laird, who had several cistern builds under his belt. He downloaded his brain on the topic to us, and we soaked up the details of construction. We also read Art Ludwig's book, Water Storage: Tanks, Cisterns, Ponds and Groundwater and soaked up his recommendations as well. We consulted plumbers and masonry contractors and lined up a team of semi-experienced helpers and took the plunge. The first step was squaring out our hole and ensuring the ground would hold a gazillion pounds of pressure. I stepped into the role of project manager while Mike would lead construction. Whenever stepping into unfamiliar terrain, every step seems like it could be a misstep. And here too, we have been second-guessing ourselves every step of the way. Is it firm enough? Maybe a little more gravel. And a little more. Next was setting up formwork for our slab floor pour. We ordered "readymix" to come delivered in a truck with a godsend of a driver who took one look at our questioning faces and jumped off the truck to start showing us what to do with the giant puddle of concrete. That went well too thanks in part to him. Our blacksmithy neighbor Brian worked a little rebar magic for us on his anvil and helped with the pour and within a few hours we were breathing sighs of temporary relief.

     The next hurdle would be the walls. We decided on the safe strategy of copying exactly what had worked for our Sandhill friends, and that included borrowing our friend Tyler from them, who had been on their team last year. Thankfully he was more than willing to join us for a week (it doesn't hurt that his sweetie Cynthia lives just down the road from us). Tyler and Mike started laying out the blocks, the key being leveling each course and block, as well as grinding the blocks smooth for a tighter fit. Every third hole gets rebar running the height of the wall as well as concrete mortar. The goal is to then do a fiberglass-reinforced surface-bonding cement plaster inside and out along with an additional water-tight interior coat. And what I have been doing in this crazy cement circus? Alternating between trying to finish the plaster inside and running around sourcing all of the pipes, obscure ingredients, to keep things on track. On top of needing an inlet and outlet pipes, the cistern also needs a clean-out valve and overflow pipe. Another puzzle has been figuring out how the outlet plumbing will clear the airspace between our house (on piers remember) and the 2.5' underground safe zone where ambient ground temperature will keep it from freezing. Luckily it turns out the Home Depot plumbing department consultant is someone I know (Sparky from Neighbors United!) and has spent hours with me hashing out ideas. We are going to try a series of insulation layers around the 3/4" PEX tubing (which won't burst when frozen) with a strip of heat tape for insurance on those extra-cold days.

    So that is basically where we have gotten to! The next puzzle to figure out is how to set up framework to pour a roof over the cistern. And all of this before we start getting into frosty weather which is not great for cement curing.  If only we could hit the toggle switch on our superhuman powers of moving twice as fast with twice the limbs.... Until then, we are steadily plugging along.